Monday, April 27, 2009

Book/Magazine Review: Business Secrets from the Stars by David Dvorkin

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

If we're just talking about titles, Business Secrets from the Stars is as good fit for a novel such as this: it's a plausible name for a nonfiction work and leaves little doubt as to what it's trying to teach. But since this isn't that type of book, the reader is immediately keyed to the metafiction and one gets a sense that humor will somehow play a role in the narrative. David Dvorkin's Business Secrets from the Stars follows the story of Malcolm, a wannabe fiction writer who ends up writing a best-seller. Along the way, Dvorkin inserts social and political commentary through satire.

The book has some good points and bad. When it comes to the former, Dvorkin writes a compelling first chapter that dives immediately into the novel's premise. Unfortunately, the succeeding chapters are flashbacks and while those particular scenes are enjoyable in small doses, I feel the author overextends himself and there's a point where you want to get it over with as reading becomes too self-referential (i.e. the trials and tribulations of a fiction writer). Eventually, the book picks up as the protagonist finally succeeds in publishing the fictional Business Secrets from the Stars although by this point, Dvorkin inserts a tangent storyline featuring a caricature of US politics. Personally, I felt the insertion of this subject matter worked when it was limited to a few scenes but that's not Dvorkin's intent as a good chunk of the book dovetails into the presidency and the Republican system. While there are hints early on that this is the final destination, I feel the author spreads himself thin and there's a lack of synergy between the differing agendas. It doesn't help that our protagonist, Malcom, has little redeeming qualities. For the most part, he feels like a tool to tell a dystopic story--albeit one sprinkled with comedy--and while there are certainly characters like him in real life, he's reduced to being a two-dimensional character that only reinforces the single-track direction of this novel.

Dvorkin's prose is quite accessible and there's no mistaking his intent when it comes to humor. Comedy isn't this single, definable layer and each writer has a different take on how they present it. In the case of Dvorkin, it's not on the slapstick level (although there are slapstick scenes), but it's not an intellectual's satire either. Personally, I find his comedy better suited to shorter work as the jokes can get quite repetitive, especially when it comes to the political allusions.

Overall, Business Secrets from the Stars is too mediocre for my tastes and Dvorkin is heavy-handed at times. Which isn't to say that he isn't funny but his material feels too transparent and direct (which isn't necessarily a bad thing for some readers).

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